Kyle Shanahan did nothing wrong.
I feel that this is a crucial point to restate when talking about the unfortunate and season-altering injury to Trey Lance that occurred against the Seahawks. Many people seem more than ready to once again throw Shanahan out with the bath water after what boils down to a reality of life in the NFL. Players get injured.
This situation from a franchise, team, player, and fan perspective is loaded about six ways from Sunday, which has led to the outpouring of reactions that range from devastated to enraged to relieved (the worst response, if you were wondering).
So, let’s break this down in the simplest terms possible.
First of all, as stated above, Kyle Shanahan did nothing wrong. He didn’t hang his player out to dry. He didn’t endanger his well-being. He absolutely didn’t hope that Lance would get hurt so Jimmy could move back to the starting role. He called football plays in a football game, and injury is the risk you run as a football player.
Remember what Shanahan said during the draft process? “You want to find Drew Brees, who can move like Lamar Jackson.”
That’s what Shanahan views as the ultimate in the trade of quarterbacking. Someone who can force the defense to play 11-on-11. Someone who can create when structure breaks down. Someone who can create mismatches all over the field with a combination of arm strength and speed. That’s the value Trey Lance brings to a team. That’s the value Shanahan wants to utilize when game planning and play calling for Trey Lance.
This concept is especially true for younger, less polished players who offer this extra dimension of athleticism. Learning how to read defenses, where to put the ball, and when to pull the trigger as an NFL quarterback represents the biggest set of challenges for any player jumping from the amateur to professional level in any sport. It can be a long, uneven, and, often, bumpy process that never truly ends.
You know what can smooth out that process and provide some stability to an offense?
Leaning on the natural ability of your quarterback to regularly make positive plays on the ground that outweigh any youthful lapses of judgment through the air. Simultaneously, you hope they continue to grow and mature as a passer until they are as much of a threat in the pass game as they are on the ground. It’s a simple formula. One that’s developed two-megawatt superstars of the modern NFL. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen.
Look at their first two years in the league. Jackson had 265 designed run plays called for him. That’s the most ever in any two-year span in any quarterback’s career. To be fair, he’s a singular talent that defies much, if not all, comparison.
You know who was second in designed runs over their first two seasons? Josh Allen.
The Bills decided the seventh overall pick and their future franchise player should tuck it and run 106 times. In his second season, the Bills made the playoffs as the fifth seed, mostly powered by this additional wrinkle to their offense, which also included a healthy dose of RPOs. Defenses respected his threat to run, which opened up easier passes because Allen personally toted the rock over the goal line nine times.
Even more recently, Jalen Hurts led the league with 72 designed runs and 377 yards on those runs at 377 in 2021. His offensive coaching staff went all in on that approach after seeing it as their most viable path to winning games.
For the first seven weeks, the Eagles favored passing on early downs before shifting to the most active run game in the league on those same downs. Hurts proved key to this transition, and it immediately led to results for the Eagles, who backed into the playoffs.
The biggest difference between the 49ers’ Lance and all these other quarterbacks is the luxury of low expectations. The Bills tore their team down to the studs and rebuilt around Allen, accepting a 6-10 record in his rookie year as necessary lumps. Hurts stepped in as a replacement for a wilting Carson Wentz and showed enough promise in a 4-9-1 season to bet on moving forward.
Meanwhile, Lance stepped into a team just barely removed from a Super Bowl appearance that retained its core talent. Furthering compounding the urgency to win now, the Niners nearly advanced out of the NFC Championship game while he sat to learn the offense.
The pressure to win during this window of opportunity couldn’t be much higher, and not just for the young QB, but the coach, front office, and the team’s vets. Perhaps, this added layer pushed the issue of deploying Lance’s legs more often to help live up to everyone’s lofty aspirations.
On the other hand, many pundits and fans alike have claimed that Kyle Shanahan clearly didn’t trust his young quarterback to throw the ball, and by not having him throw, Lance’s development will be stunted. Beyond that, based on Shanahan’s presumed mistrust, you can read further into Garoppolo’s eventual return to the team. Thus, if the Niners had simply believed harder in Lance and had the guts to let Jimmy G go, none of this would’ve happened.
Alright, that might just be a vocal minority, so let’s take the tin foil hats off and leave the conspiracy theories aside. In fact, you don’t have to look any further than slightly up the screen, and then Jalen Hurts’ stats on Monday Night Football to dispel this ridiculous theory.
Hurts aired it out to the tune of 333 yards while also scoring two touchdowns on the ground, looking unstoppable against a hapless Minnesota defense. Doesn’t seem like the run-heavy attack of last season lengthened his learning curve too much, even if it did result in a high ankle sprain that required off-season surgery.
That’s the thing; injury remains a near-constant concern with dual-threat quarterbacks. Exposing the most valuable man on your roster to so many hits can be like running a 17-game gauntlet. That’s why nearly every offseason, there’s a deluge of stories about how these offenses, after having made it to the metaphorical safety of a mostly healthy QB season, will become more reliant on the pass to diminish the inherent risks.
A golden example is the aforementioned Josh Allen. The man whose usage led to one of the more tense exchanges in recent Shanahan pressers. Replying to a series of questions about how he deployed Lance, Shanahan barely contained his contempt when he, rhetorically or not, asked, “Do you guys watch other teams in this league? Do you watch Buffalo? You guys should watch other teams play.”
While that may sound like the statement of a man who knows everything, I have to disagree with Kyle. You wouldn’t have been able to flip to ESPN on Monday night to see Josh Allen running QB Power and barreling through defenders because he’s ascended to a stratosphere in which nearly any running attempt feels like a waste of his talents. The Bills no longer need to lean on the crutch of Allen’s legs to keep the offense churning forward at an unreal pace.
Is it possible that Trey Lance one day reaches these seemingly impossible heights? Frankly, it’s an unfair expectation to put on him, but if he does, it will almost certainly be under the guidance of Kyle Shanahan, and the process will involve all of his physical gifts to get there while winning games. Unfortunately, that development will have to wait one more year.